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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeilech/Shabbat Shuvah: Improving our chances

Summary

During the Ten Days of Repentance we search our souls for ways to improve. On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. The prophets had difficulties understanding G'd's judgment. Even Abraham and Moses could not understand the ways of G'd. "Whoever destroys the life of one Jew, is to be considered as destroying a whole world." Would it not have been better if Yom Kippur came before Rosh Hashanah? Full, honest, sincere repentance is inspired in times of judgment. If every year we repent during the Ten Days of Repentance, and we are forgiven on Yom Kippur, why do people suffer and die after that? "And repentance and prayer and charity have the ability to remove the evil decree."

Ways to improve

This week Jews worldwide celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and we are now preparing for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur are referred to as the Ten Days of Repentance. This is a time for reflection. We search our souls for ways to improve, both as individuals and as a community. And we say extra prayers asking for forgiveness for our shortcomings in the past year and that the new year shall bring us an abundance of Divine blessings.

Unesaneh Tokef

As we look back at the past year we find both success and failure. We have experienced joy and happiness, as well as sorrow and pain. We cannot begin to understand the ways of G'd. We have seen righteous people who suffer, and evil and wicked people having a good time, young people who have found an untimely death, and old people who do not appreciate their longevity. All this was decided during last year's High Holidays, as we say in the very moving prayer "Unesaneh Tokef" in the Mussaf service: "The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them - and they will say, Behold, it is the Day of Judgment All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed how many will die and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who will die at the predestined time and who before the time "

G'd's ways are not our ways

Even the prophets had it difficult to understand G'd's judgment. The Prophet Isaiah says in the name of G'd, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways - says G'd. As high as the Heavens are over the earth, so are My ways higher than yours, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts" (55:8-9). In last week's parasha, we learn that the hidden things in life only G'd understands (Devarim 29:28). Only He knows how everything fits together and ultimately is for everyone's benefit.

The greatest not understand

Our greatest such as Abraham and Moses could not understand the ways of G'd. Abraham argued with G'd back and forth, at great length, in an attempt to save the wicked Sodom and neighbouring cities from destruction. Only when G'd explained to him that there were absolutely no righteous people worthwhile saving, besides Lot and his family, Abraham finally ceased to plead for mercy (Bereishis 18:23-33). Moses protested to G'd at the Korach uprising, "one man has sinned and Your anger struck at the whole congregation?" (Bamidbar 16:22).

One is a multitude

We may not be able to understand the ways of G'd; however, we do know that every individual's life is very dear and valuable to Him. When G'd sent Moses to warn the Jews at Mount Sinai, He said, "Go down and warn the people that they should not break through and rise on the mountain, and a multitude of them will fall" (Shemos 19:21). Our Sages point out that the word "will fall" in the Hebrew is in the singular. This is grammatically incorrect as it refers to the "multitude" which is plural. Rashi explains that even if one single Jew will fall, G'd considers it as though a multitude has fallen. There is a famous statement in the Talmud, "Whoever destroys the life of one Jew, is to be considered as destroying a whole world. And whoever sustains the life of one Jew, is to be considered as if sustaining a whole world (Sanhedrin 37a). This person could marry and have children and those children could marry and have their children, and so on. In this way, every individual has the potential to be a mini-world of countless generations waiting to be born. Even in the rare case when a Beth Din executed a wicked person, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 46a) expresses the pain G'd feels at losing one of his beloved children. How much more so when a righteous person loses his life!

Better Yom Kippur before Rosh Hashanah?

G'd is not interested in punishing or making anyone suffer. He only created the world to bestow His goodness upon everyone, in general, and on the Jewish people in particular. As the Prophet Ezekiel says in the name of G'd, "I do not want that a person should die. Repent and live!" (18:32). With this in mind, Rabbi Israel Salanter asks a major question: Would it not have been better if Yom Kippur came before Rosh Hashanah? Since Yom Kippur is the day when G'd forgives us for our sins, and Rosh Hashanah is the day when He judges us, imagine having a day of forgiveness before the Day of Judgment. There would be nothing left to judge and no reason to punish since everyone would have been forgiven.

Full, honest, sincere repentance

Rabbi Salanter answers that this would never work. We only achieve forgiveness on Yom Kippur in response to our repentance during the Ten Days of Repentance. If Yom Kippur preceded Rosh Hashanah there would be no incentive to repent. Full, honest, sincere repentance is inspired by our judgment on Rosh Hashanah. This Day of Judgment brings each of us to search ourselves and to carefully analyse our deeds of the past year. Since repentance is a prerequisite for G'd to wipe our slates clean and forgive us, the Judgment of Rosh Hashanah must precede the forgiveness of Yom Kippur.

G'd takes every detail into account

However, an obvious question still remains. If every year we repent during the Ten Days of Repentance, and we are forgiven on Yom Kippur, why do people suffer and die after that? And how can it be that people who do not repent, and do not even observe Yom Kippur, go through the year in good health without any suffering? The early commentators discuss these questions and explain that every individual is different, and people's situations vary one from another. G'd takes every detail of a person's situation into account when He decides who shall be inscribed in the Book of Life, and who not. In addition, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is not only being decided what shall happen to us in this world, it is also being decided how our deeds will affect our portion in the World to Come.

Improve our chances

We must keep in mind throughout these ten crucial days what we say after the "Unesaneh Tokef" prayer in Mussaf: "And repentance and prayer and charity have the ability to remove the evil decree." When we earnestly try to repent and pray with more sincerity, as well as give more charity, we will definitely impact the Heavenly verdict and improve our chances for having a year with Divine blessings in all areas of our life. And even if G'd in His infinite wisdom still inscribes us to a year with difficulties and challenges, we will still be richly rewarded for every effort in the World to Come.

Inscribe for good and blessed year

May our Merciful Father in Heaven inscribe us, together with all Jews worldwide, to a good and blessed year, with health and prosperity for everyone. And may we merit this year to see the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Amen.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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